Victor Vu has a talent for latte art. He’s used to thrilling large audiences with his original designs and creative abstract patterns.
He proved his skill when he won the MilkLab Barista Battle Series final at the Melbourne International Coffee Expo in March. He crafted three designs using MilkLab’s range of alternative milks: soy milk, macadamia milk, and lactose-free milk.
He excelled in the free pour category, creating a pattern that highlighted the “harmony between coffee and milk”.
“Some of the alternative milks are made from nuts, so you have to be gentle with them,” Victor says. “I created and combined some basic techniques to allow me to overcome that.”
Victor put his latte art skills to the test again in Peru in August, on an all-expenses-paid origin trip, as part of his prize thanks to Milklab, organised with Fairtrade.
This time, the audience was a little smaller. He took part in a latte art showcase at Cafetería Apú on his first day in the country. He used the familiar La Marzocco and Mahlkönig machinery to display his skills.
“[The showcase] was all about free pour designs: a deer looking back, rabbit jumping in a forest, owl in a tree, sleeping lizard, dragon, and leaves,” Victor says. “I love free pour because it’s all about creativity and skill.”
This was Victor’s first time in South America, and his first time at origin.
“I had no idea how much work went into bringing coffee from the farm to the café. [The process] is much larger than I thought.”
Born in Vietnam, Victor is mostly self-taught in latte art.
“The coffee culture is really different in Vietnam,” Victor says. “It’s so hot that people would rather drink cold drinks. Hot coffee is not really popular at all.”
Victor first became interested in latte art after watching a video on the internet. He found a job as a barista where his colleagues taught him the basics, such as how to hold a milk jug and draw a heart.
Because lattes were not popular, Victor would pay for two out of his pocket every day to practice designing patterns.
To grow his abilities further, Victor moved to Melbourne to study hospitality, and has worked at a number of popular cafés, including Code Black Coffee, Veneziano Coffee Roasters, and The Hardware Société in Melbourne’s CBD.
“I’m still trying to learn more about coffee so I can progress further in the industry,” he says.
Back at origin, Victor was again given the opportunity to enhance his coffee knowledge.
On day two of his trip in Peru, he visited two coffee farms in the Santa Fe village of the Cajamarca region to learn about coffee production.
Both farms produce specialty coffee, cupping above 84 points for cultivars including Bourbon, Catimor, Pache, and Caturra.
At Victor’s first stop, owned by farmer Meliano Soavedra, he observed and assisted in the first stages of washed coffee processing. This included removing the outer layer of skin and washing the beans.
“They harvest the ripe beans, wash them in a big sink three to four times in 24 hours, then dry them on a tray,” Victor says. “The good coffee sinks to the bottom and the defects float to the top. The good beans are heavier because the defects are hollow or empty inside.”
The experience has made Victor more aware of some of the challenges the farmers face.
“How fast the beans dry really depends on the weather that day, whether it’s sunny or raining,” he says.
Victor also noted the lack of resources available.
“Not every place has access to good technology, support from the government, or good conditions to grow,” he says. “Some places have machines that can check the humidity levels in the bean, but [at the farms I visited] they had to use their own experience of how the bean feels, and that’s it.”
After leaving Meliano’s farm, Victor visited a property owned by Gerardo Alacorn and went harvesting with him and his family.
“It was my first time seeing red cherry beans,” Victor says.
In Peru, the harvesting season lasts from June or July until October. Farmers pick ripe coffee cherries by hand and collect them in a basket worn on the picker’s chest. After washing the cherries, the farmers carry them from more than two kilometres above sea level down to the Cenfrocafe cooperative.
Cenfrocafe works with more than 3000 farmers in the region to increase the overall quality of their coffee, allowing them to sell it for a higher price.
“Cenfrocafe provides good opportunities for farmers,” Victor says. “The farmers don’t speak English. They have internet access but they don’t know how to access the information and resources they need. [Cenfrocafe] educates them, trains them, stands up for them, and creates access to supply chains.”
The one-hectare cooperative and warehouse conducts honey and natural processing, neither of which local farmers have the equipment or training to do themselves.
Cenfrocafe workers told Victor the warehouse has a significant yearly loading capacity.
At the cooperative, the beans are dried, cleaned and measured. Then, the inner layer of skin is removed. The percentage of defective beans is recorded and a sample is used for cupping and testing.
Victor got involved and evaluated five coffee samples, measuring the aroma, scored the cup quality, and discussed the results with three Q Graders.
Over the past six years, Cenfrocafe has saved all its income to invest in future projects. “Half goes to training and educating the farmers. The other half is invested in the warehouse,” Victor says.
Visiting an origin country has given Victor an even greater appreciation for coffee and the work that goes on behind the scenes.
“It’s not easy to get a cup of coffee,” Victor says. “I really respect the farmers, what they’re doing, and what they go through. If I had the chance, I would go back to Peru, or another origin country, to learn even more about processing and how the farmers are doing.”
Victor placed third in the Australian Specialty Coffee Association’s Southern Region Latte Art Championship on 14 October. Victor says his trip to Peru inspired his designs. Perhaps he’ll be able to dedicate a win to his new Peruvian friends one day soon.